The theme of war guilt in Bernard Schlink's, "The Reader".
One of the main ideas in The Reader is German war guilt - guilt felt by both the war-time generation and the post-war generation. The post-war generation, to which the author, Schlink, belongs, has struggled to come to terms with the war crimes committed by the previous generation. The novel begins with a sick Michael being comforted by the maternal Hanna. This is an obvious symbol for the idea that the post-war generation needs to confront the deeds of its predecessor before it can be free of a sense of collective guilt. The novel is clearly an allegory for the collective guilt of ordinary Germans.
Guilt is portrayed in the novel by a sense of numbness and isolation. Michael, along with the others at the trial, is numbed by the evils committed in his country's name. This numbness is a symbol of the way ordinary Germans try to distance themselves from the 'monsters' who could commit such acts. After the trial, Michael suffers a fever and then is free of his numbness; this shows that confronting the past (as the trial did) is healthy for Germany.
A by-product of guilt is blame, and finding someone to blame is a way of lessening the pain of guilt. Hanna's crimes and the ensuing trial expose the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. Hanna deals with her guilt - she was part of a group of guards who refused to unlock a burning church, causing the deaths of many prisoners - by blaming her orders: "we had to guard them and not let them escape." Many war-time Germans blamed orders, politicians, mob mentality and ignorance. Similarly, Michael's generation blame their parents to escape any guilt: "We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst." Schlink obviously feels that those involved with the war have to face their complicity in the Holocaust before they can move on as a nation. Similarly, the post-war generation